When you come up against a bully, they best thing you can do is give him a swift punch in the nose.* Tonight, Arsenal faced the biggest bully in Europe and gave him a proper jab to the proboscis. But this German bully recovered, with a little help from the referee, and proceeded to give us a bit of a beating in the end.
Before the match kicked off, I would’ve gladly taken a draw. Munich came to the emirates as reigning Champions of Europe and with a sparkling CV this season. There has been a lot of debate about whether Arsenal have really improved from last season. Some people have pointed to the fact that we have failed to garner the same points from similar fixtures this season as evidence that there actually hasn’t been any improvement.
Others point to our position in the table as a clear sign that we have taken a step forward. As far as I was concerned, this match was the perfect opportunity to gauge how much progress we had really made from last season. Based on our abject performance last season, all I was hoping for was a sign that we had indeed moved in the right direction.
As it happened, Arsenal did more than show improvement. We were better than I could’ve hoped for in the opening 40 minutes. We stood toe to toe with the champion and bloodied their nose. Unfortunately, missed opportunities gave Bayern a chance to regain their composure, and one lapse in concentration, like a haymaker from a heavyweight, was enough to essentially knock us out of the match, and potentially out of the tie.
The first talking point was the team selection. I thought Arsene got the selection spot-on, with one notable exception. He stuck with the Ox based on his scintillating recent form and was largely rewarded. He also stood by Jack Wilshere, and during the opening 30 minutes before the red card, he was as good as you could hope. But the eye-opening choice was the selection of Yaya Sanogo over Olivier Giroud.
After the match Arsene claimed that it was not punishment. Before the match I claimed that it was madness. How can you face the Champions of Europe with a player who had started one match for the club ever? It seemed a strange choice even in light of Sanogo’s decent performance against Liverpool in the FA cup. Ultimately, I am happy to say that Arsene got it right. Sanogo was mostly excellent. He was tireless. He was a hand-full. And were it not for a brilliant stop from Neuer, he may well have been the hero.
Regardless of the situation with Giroud, and regardless of the correct assertion that we should never be going into such a big game with such an inexperienced centre forward unless compelled by injury, Sanogo acquitted himself magnificently and was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet.
Once the game kicked off it was clear that we could match the German giants. What I liked most is how quickly we unsettled them. There were chances there to be had. The big chances fell to Ox and Sanogo, but there were other moves that showed promised. For example, Flamini shot into row Z when he could’ve left the ball for Cazorla. In many ways this match was about the left side of both defenses. For the opening 30 minutes, it appeared that the left side of Bayern’s defense would be their undoing.
Dante’s performance during that spell reminded me of our near miss against Milan a couple seasons ago. Ironically it was Oxlade-Chamberlain as chief tormentor again. Dante couldn’t deal with him, and if it weren’t Neuer’s speed off of his line, the Englishman might well have had the opening goal, after some brilliant play by Sanogo to send him in. Unfortunately it was the left side of Arsenal’s defense that would ultimately prove most vulnerable.
There’s no getting around the two incidents that changed the game. The first involved Mesut Ozil. He did brilliantly to win his penalty, but the effort that followed was nothing short of shambolic. I never thought he should’ve been taking the spot kick to begin with, but the other natural candidates weren’t in the game. Ultimately, Ozil had the courage to take the kick but I think it was always going to be difficult to ask him to score against a childhood friend. There’s probably not a keeper in the world that would know his tendencies better.
Regardless, it was a tame effort from a player of his calibre. If you put an Arsenal player in the corner of the goal, Ozil would have no problem passing the ball to his feet. If he did that on his penalties, he’d score every time. Easier said than done admittedly. More worrying than Ozil’s penalty effort was his reaction. He was clearly effected by the miss and for the subsequent 10-15 minutes he was a shadow of himself. It’s fair to say that he never fully recovered from missing the penalty and considering the pressure that has been on the German lately, we can only hope that this doesn’t have lingering effects.
Ozil’s miss was a turning point in the match. Arsenal should’ve been at least 1-0 up on the champions of Europe. At that moment they looked vulnerable and easy enough to break down. We weren’t dominating them (Kroos did force an excellent save from Szczesny from distance) but we had them scrambling at the back. Had we gone up a goal, it would’ve served to strengthen our belief and further sowed the seeds of doubt for Bayern. But Ozil’s penalty miss was the best thing that could’ve happened to Bayern.
Soon after, another major talking point of the match ruined Arsenal’s night. But it was something that happened before that, that really changed the game. Kieran Gibbs started the night brilliantly. He was full of energy and effort and tactical awareness. Robben wasn’t able to get the best of him, and he wasn’t being exposed despite lacking real cover from Santi Cazorla. But then Gibbs went down in a manner that suggested he was in real trouble. And considering his injury history, it was easy to tell that he wasn’t going to be finishing the game.
Monreal replaced Gibbs after 31 minutes, and seven minutes later, after Nacho failed to track Robben’s run, Arsenal were reduced to 10 men. It’s not worth debating Szczesny’s red card. There are some who will say it was harsh, and some who will claim it was deserved. I think by the letter of the law, he probably deserved to see red. That’s not to say that I think the rule is fair, but I can see the reason why a red was given. Yes, Bayern could’ve and probably should’ve suffered the same fate, but that’s immaterial. Szczesny was sent off, and the game was ruined.
Despite Bayern’s failure to convert the penalty, there was little hope for an Arsenal recovery. Arsene Wenger was forced into two substitutions in the first half. So there was little he could do to protect the nil-nil scoreline in the second half. I do think it would’ve been wise to take Ozil off for Fabianski. Mesut was never the same after missing the penalty, and it’s really not fair to leave him on for 50+ minutes of staunch rearguard action. That’s just not his strength.
After we were reduced to 10 men it was always going to be a damage limitation job. A nil-nil was the best we could hope for and I’m not sure how Mesut could’ve contributed to achieving that result. But Arsene not only left Ozil on after Szczesny’s red card, but he refused to take him off for Rosicky in the second half. That decision was baffling. Perhaps Arsene felt that Ozil was the one player who could help us keep some possession, but if so it never materialised. Instead, he proved a liability defensively as our left flank became the staging ground for virtually every Bayern attack.
At 0-1, I thought we might be okay. Heading to Bayern where we had won with a lesser side just one year ago, we would’ve had cause for optimism. But conceding a late second was a hammer blow. The team fought valiantly but after going down a man, and without the benefit of an extra substitute, the tired legs and minds could not keep the German champions from putting the tie nearly out of reach.
We will go to Germany with hope, but it will be little more than a glimmer. At this point, the bigger hope is that the exertions and the disappointment fromWednesday don’t carry into the weekend when a different challenge will face the Gunners at the Emirates. Champions of Europe in midweek and Sunderland on a Saturday. What I know for certain, is if we bring the same effort and energy to that match that we did against Bayern, then we will sweep the Black Cats aside with some panache.
There were other talking points from that match that I find mostly tedious. Robben was accused of spitting on Sagna but the video seems to show him sweating on Sagna. There was the usual twitter abuse for Ozil but that just seems beyond pointless. He’s our best player and the fact that he wasn’t expert at defending deep for 60 minutes shouldn’t come as a surprise. I agree that the penalty miss was abysmal but it happens to the best. There was some talk about handshakes that isn’t worth another sentence. And finally, there’s the understandable concern about Olivier Giroud.
Giroud will be hurt by not starting against Bayern. He probably had this date circled on his calendar. (Which I can only assume also has “stare into the mirror” written every day.) Arsene’s decision not to start him was somewhat validated by Sanogo’s performance but there is no doubt that we need Giroud to play well down the stretch if we hope to accomplish anything this season. Hopefully Giroud will find a way to sort out the issues in his personal life and produce the kind of performances that had people thinking differently about him earlier this season.
Thankfully, it appears we have a real player in Sanogo, and while he is clearly lacking polish, I’m sure the manager won’t hesitate to use him again. Arsenal are not specialists in failure. That is beyond absurd and offensive. But in the Champions League, we have specialized in dramatic failure. From losing with 10 men in Paris, to the penalty debacle against Liverpool, to RVP’s phantom red in Barca, to the near comebacks against Milan and Bayern, it seems that we have managed to crash out of this competition in increasingly creative fashion.
But against Bayern on Wednesday night, what will hurt the most is that we will all be left with a sense of what could’ve been. As Iain Macintosh said on twitter, I wish that I could watch the last 50 minutes of the match I had been watching before Szczesny was sent off. But that’s not how it works. Pep Guardiola rightly pointed out that football is a “game of mistakes,” and on Wednesday night, once again, it was Arsenal that made the killer mistakes.
Some people write off the Champions League as a competition we will never win. I am not one of them. As long as we are in it, I will hope for a miracle. Now we need a miracle of some scale to progress. I could delve into the failure in Napoli that led us to this matchup with the toughest opponent in the tournament, but that seems like excessive crying over curdled spilled milk at this point.
I can also spend some time complaining about the way the media fawned over oil-rich Manchester City losing to a Barca side that Bayern beat 7-0 on aggregate last season, while ridiculing us about this valiant effort. But that’s not worth another sentence either. When it’s all said and done I’m proud of what we did early in the match. I think we showed real improvement.
I hope that the team will take heart from the performance and use it to carry us forward. My fear is that they will be deeply hurt by the manner of the defeat and suffer a hangover. But we will see on Saturday. One final word about the support. Kudos to Red Action for an excellent display in the stadium and to the supporters at the Emirates who created an incredible atmosphere. The more we can do that, the more the Emirates will become our fortress. This tie, like our season, isn’t done yet. Onward and upward.
*This is a metaphor. Please do not attempt this against an actual bully.
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- nurwithinme said: Spot on. Agree with you :)
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